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>Train More or Eat Less?

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What’s the Best Way to Boost Fat Loss?

Train More or Eat Less?: What's the Best Way to Boost Fat Loss?

The Decision

If your goal is fat loss, then there’s going to come a time when you have to make a decision: How much more am I going to diet? How much cardio or extra exercise am I going to do? Which is better?
Typically, there are four basic strategies when it comes to getting ripped:

Strategy #1: Drugs

Most of us aren’t going to go this route, nor do we need to, but I have to mention it because it’s a method commonly used by professional bodybuilders.
I was reading an old bodybuilding interview from the Tom Platz era where the competitor said, “Oh, you really don’t need a lot of cardio.” I’m thinking, well, you didn’t, dude!
But if you’re not artificially elevating your basal metabolic rate, jacking around with lots of thyroid meds, clenbuterol etc., then at some point you have to bring cardio into the equation.

Strategy #2: Cardio

There are two basic types here: the non-panting, semi-fasted variety that I’ve written about before and high-intensity work like sprints and intervals. These can be used in conjunction with each other or independently depending on your state of training.

Strategy #3: Food Restriction

Sure, this is obviously part of any diet plan, but you can only push it so far.
There’s a miniature literature review here on the site that outlines how far one can go while avoiding “starvation mode” (metabolic slow-down) by sticking to just moderate kcal restrictions.

Strategy #4: More Weight Training

Train More or Eat Less?: What's the Best Way to Boost Fat Loss?

Although we don’t think about it often, a longer weight-training workout does lead to extra calorie expenditure, some derived from fat oxidation.
We shouldn’t forget that hitting the iron itself increases subcutaneous abdominal fat breakdown and “burning.” (Ormsbee, et al. 2009) If you’re going to try to avoid cardio, your only other options are more volume, finishing work, or accessory work during your regular training session.
Of these four strategies, two get the most attention: cardio and diet. So let’s take a look at each and establish some guidelines.

Calories: How Low is Too Low?

You’ve heard this applied to other topics, and it’s true for calorie intake as well: “You can only go so far to the left before you’ve got to go back to the right.”
How many calories can you get away with before your metabolism really slows down and you go into starvation mode?
Starvation mode is something you have to avoid at all costs. Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is about 65 or 70% of all the calories you put out every day. So when you slow that down, even a cardio workout that burns 400 calories may just be making up for a depressed BMR.
In the classic underfeeding studies in the 60’s and 70’s, college-aged men were fed 3500 calories per day, then dropped to only 450 per day. These poor guys experienced up to a 45% drop in BMR in a single month. (Bray, G., 1969)
That’s true starvation mode: their bodies were trying to keep from dying, their metabolisms were “panicking” and slowing down because it was assumed they were in the middle of a famine.
When you do a literature review, the magnitude of reduction becomes fairly clear: somewhere around 600 or 700 calories intake is about as far as I’d want to initially go.
What’s maintenance intake? It’s about 3000 kcal per day in a typical (non-lifter) college male. (Borel, M., et al 1984)
Okay, so if the average college male needs 3000 calories per day, the first step might be to drop to 2400. That’s definitely below maintenance for any adult male who’s lifting weights.
That may be the first stage. I don’t think it’s a good idea to jump right into a very aggressive diet. You probably aren’t relying on lots of drugs, so you really have tiptoe here – or at least show some respect. Ease calories down in a more controlled manner rather than going from a full-on mass phase to a crazy-strict 1600 calorie diet.
Hormones change fairly quickly in response to eating patterns. As my old endocrine professor said, “When it comes to hormones, you have to nudge the body.” You don’t force it, because then homeostatic mechanisms kick in and make you pay the price tenfold.
It’s not that painful to get down to a 2400 calorie intake. If you do something practical like cut the carbs out of your dinner and stop drinking calories (other than protein shakes and peri-workout drinks), you can get there easily. Just cut out the obvious junk food and 2400 is an easy mark to hit.
Do that for the first month or so. After the first month, you’re used to eating clean: no more junk, a lower carb dinner, etc. Then, in a month or two, continue the negative calorie balance with some cardio rather than dropping calorie intake again right way.
I like the non-panting morning variety (walking on a treadmill) because it doesn’t overtrain you. You’re not crossing any stress hormone thresholds. That said, you could do some high-intensity interval work after your weight-training workout if that’s your preference. I’ve been known to switch to this when I really needed the extra hour of sleep the prior morning (making pre-breakfast cardio impossible).
But frankly, I usually don’t have anything left in me after the weights. When I hear people say they do “lots of interval work” after their regular workouts, I worry that they’re not going to achieve their best muscular gains. That can be easily overdone: you’re dividing your body’s resources – half into the weights and half into the constant aerobics training. Not good.
Although controversial due to methodological differences, sub-optimal training responses have been well-documented in spaceflight, military, and other studies. (Carrithers, J. et al. 2007; Docherty & Sporer 2000; Dolezal & Potteiger 1998; Dudley & Djamil, 1985; Santtila, M., et al. 2009.)
Now, at bodybuilding shows, I hear my fellow competitors talk about how they quickly reduce calories to very low levels, then stay there for 12 weeks. Well, in open competitions, when the competitor is on lots of “gas,” he can do that. I can’t, so I try to coax the body fat off with a 20-week diet that starts “easy” and gets more aggressive toward the end. This is not only metabolically smarter, it’s psychologically better – for me at any rate. It builds momentum.
During the first month, I just cut down the calories moderately. (Sometimes I’ll do some very limited interval work on the bike just to set the stage for the following month.) The second month I add in regular non-panting cardio, keeping calories the same. With the pre-breakfast style cardio that I do, I usually drain off 400 more calories.
So if you’re eating 2400 kcal per day, you’re now down to 2000 in a sense because you’re “bleeding off” another 400 with the extra work. Now you’re in a calorie deficit through a combination of dietary manipulation and cardio.
If it doesn’t ask you, it’s going to assume you’re a 150-pound dude. If you’re not, then you’re burning far more calories than it tells you.
That’s still no guarantee that it’s accurate. Those consoles on the cardio machines are just glorified calculators, not portable metabolic carts, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

The Exercise Factor

Train More or Eat Less?: What's the Best Way to Boost Fat Loss?

Remember, exercise is not just anti-eating. Exercise builds structures like capillaries and mitochondria. In other words, exercise builds your fat-burning machinery.
Let’s say your maintenance level is 3000 calories per day. After a month or so of easing calories down, you drop 600 calories, then spend another 400 calories on cardio several days a week. Now you’re 1000 calories sub-maintenance.
Now is when you have to start making decisions based on your results and individual needs. You’re eating less and doing more cardio – you’re pushing it pretty hard. At this point, I’d suggest a couple of things:
First, if you feel like the diet is really easy, maybe you can restrict down again food-wise. You take it down to 2000 calories of food per day if you’re not already there.
Second, if you’re already having a tough time with diet, the flipside is to add more calorie output in some way with physical activity. If you’re already doing the fasted morning stuff, maybe you try some HIIT after a weight-training workout, or vice-versa. If you can’t do both because of your schedule, you can start adding sets in the gym.
Once you’re 1000 calories below maintenance, you really have to decide whether you’re fresh enough to do this physically or dietarily. It’s a subjective call. If this is coming at the end of month two or during month three of your cutting phase, and you find yourself having a tough time sleeping, getting head colds, upper respiratory tract infections, or cold sores, you’re probably overtraining.
There’s a clear link between your immune system taking a hit and overreaching. Your body could be saying, “Listen, I’m struggling here. Enough with the extra exercise volume!”
Use this to decide where you’re going next. If my motivation to train was humming along at 6’s and 7’s and now it’s routinely a 3 or a 4, I’m burning myself out. Now I know not to add any more cardio or sets in the weight room.
I do the same thing with hunger. This is where experience plays a roll: Is it “munchies” calling, or is it truedepletion? There’s being “empty and weak” and then there’s “wishing you had a bag of chips.” The latter is just your love handles calling. The former may be your muscles calling, so go ahead and feed them a little.

The 1200 to 1600 Calorie Rule

Train More or Eat Less?: What's the Best Way to Boost Fat Loss?

As a rule of thumb, most authorities will tell you – rightly – to never go below 1200 calories a day. But frankly, that’s usually for smaller women or for those who aren’t physically active. Why 1200? Because you can’t possibly get all the nutrients you need from a variety of foods with a ceiling below that!
For college men, I’d never go below 1600 calories per day, and then only temporarily. That’s ridiculously low, especially if you’re already doing cardio as part of your plan.
Right now I’m two weeks from a bodybuilding show, in strict contest prep mode, and I’m sitting at 1600-1800 cals. Let me tell you, it’s not even fun right now! I’m just trying to hold myself together. The little nagging injuries are starting to accumulate. (Then again, I’m 42, with lots of mileage on this chassis.)
In any case, if you’re strung out and under-eating, you may start cramping and getting little injuries that just don’t go away. This is especially obvious to the older, more experienced lifter. That’s because you’re eating so little that your tissues just aren’t turning over.
Let’s say you’re well into a diet, say month four (weeks 13-16 out of 20). You’re at a rock-bottom 1600 kcal per day and doing cardio. First, realize that this isn’t sustainable. You should have a target date where the diet is “finished.” Now, consider NEPA.

The NEPA Factor

One of then things I have people do is buy a pedometer that measures steps taken per day. First, get some baseline data of how many steps you take when you’re eating well – your normal diet. Let’s say you’re walking around getting a good 8000 steps per day.
But now, months deep into your diet, you look down and you’re getting 4000 or 5000 steps per day. You’re moving around less in part because you have less thyroid and leptin. You’re less energized. You’re sluggish. Your body is trying to conserve energy.
This decreased NEPA (Non-Exercise Physical Activity) is yet another factor to keep in mind. It’s one more thing you can “ballpark” measure.
I don’t think people really understand NEPA. Most of us are closer to sedentary than we think, even if we go to the gym and do our cardio. To achieve “very active” status in one of those formulas that determines your calorie needs, you have to have a manual labor job, then go work out, then go dancing all night!
Most of us fall into the middle of the NEPA category: light to sedentary work but with intense recreational exertion. Overall, this may be considered “moderately active” in one of those dietary software programs. That’s where I fall as a bodybuilding college professor.

The Supplement Edge

If you’re afraid that your BMR is slowing, consider supplements. Caffeine will boost it by about 10%, and so will Spike® Energy Drink or Hot-Rox® Extreme. Plus, good ol’ water helps with thermogeniesis. (Boschmann, M., et al. 2003) So you may want to swig down your supplements with plentiful, cold H20.

So What Have We Learned?

Train More or Eat Less?: What's the Best Way to Boost Fat Loss?

Exercise results in a small magnitude of body weight change, but it’s long in duration (lasting). In other words, for those who start to exercise but don’t touch their diets, they’ll have modest results, but those results will last forever if they keep exercising.
Diet is the opposite. Dietary changes tend to be dramatic. You can lose 10, 20, 30 pounds, but it’s not long term, especially if it’s not accompanied by training. The long term success rate of restrictive stand-alone diets is dismal (perhaps about 5%) over eight years.
This illustrates why it’s important to do both: exercise and eat right. You can take small steps and increase one but not the other, or you can do both at the same time, intelligently, for faster results.
How much exercise is too much? If you experience lack of motivation and are getting sick or injured, you’ve already gone too far. As a best guess for most people, two hours a day is the top-end. That could be an hour in the morning and an hour at night.
Ectomorphic people, who tend to be thinner and more angular, may only be able to get away with 90 to 120 minutes per day.
Very robust endomorphs or mesomorphs, those who genetically carry more fat and muscle, may be able to get away with 2.5 hours of exercise per day.
For calorie restriction, 1600 calories is rock-bottom for the average T NATION reader. My advice is to take your time getting to that level, then have a targeted end date. I like 20-week diets.
Remember, you can’t keep cranking the diet knob and lowering calories forever. Instead, switch gears: do extra sets, add cardio, or add supplements.

References and Further Reading

1. Borel M., et al. Am J Clin Nutr 1984 Dec;40(6):1264-72.
2. Boschmann, M., et al. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2003 Dec;88(12):6015-9.
3. Bray, G. Lancet 1969; 2:397.
4. Carrithers, J., et al Aviat Space Environ Med. 2007 May;78(5):457-62.
5. Docherty, D. and Sporer, B. Sports Med. 2000 Dec;30(6):385-94.
6. Dolezal, B. and Potteiger, J. J Appl Physiol. 1998 Aug;85(2):695-700
7. Dudley, G. and Djamil, R. J Appl Physiol. 1985 Nov;59(5):1446-51.
8. Ormsbee, M., et al. J Appl Physiol. 2009 May;106(5):1529-37.
9. Santtila, M., et al. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Jul;23(4):1300-8.

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The Truth Behind 5 Food Myths

By: Alan Aragon, M.S.

It goes like this: A client looking to lead a healthier life hires me, a nutritionist, to help him improve his diet. I analyze what he’s been eating, factor in his food preferences, and together we create an eating plan that fits his lifestyle and goals. Soon after, he’s noticeably leaner and more energetic—a happy customer.

That’s when the trouble starts. After a coworker asks him for the details of his diet, my client suddenly finds himself in a heated interrogation. Doesn’t your nutritionist know red meat causes cancer? And that potatoes cause diabetes? Shouldn’t he tell you to eat less salt, to prevent high blood pressure?

The upshot: Myths just made my job a lot harder. That’s because nutrition misinformation fools men into being confused and frustrated in their quest to eat healthily, even if they’re already achieving great results. Thankfully, you’re about to be enlightened by science. Here are five food fallacies you can forget about for good.

High Protein is Harmful
Myth #1: “High protein intake is harmful to your kidneys.”

The origin: Back in 1983, researchers first discovered that eating more protein increases your “glomerular filtration rate,” or GFR. Think of GFR as the amount of blood your kidneys are filtering per minute. From this finding, many scientists made the leap that a higher GFR places your kidneys under greater stress.

What science really shows: Nearly 2 decades ago, Dutch researchers found that while a protein-rich meal did boost GFR, it didn’t have an adverse effect on overall kidney function. In fact, there’s zero published research showing that downing hefty amounts of protein—specifically, up to 1.27 grams per pound of body weight a day—damages healthy kidneys.

The bottom line: As a rule of thumb, shoot to eat your target body weight in grams of protein daily. For example, if you’re a chubby 200 pounds and want to be a lean 180, then have 180 grams of protein a day. Likewise if you’re a skinny 150 pounds but want to be a muscular 180.

Sweet Potatoes are Better
Myth #2: “Sweet potatoes are better for you than white potatoes.”

The origin: Because most Americans eat the highly processed version of the white potato—for instance, french fries and potato chips—consumption of this root vegetable has been linked to obesity and an increased diabetes risk. Meanwhile, sweet potatoes, which are typically eaten whole, have been celebrated for being rich in nutrients and also having a lower glycemic index than their white brethren.

What science really shows: White potatoes and sweet potatoes have complementary nutritional differences; one isn’t necessarily better than the other. For instance, sweet potatoes have more fiber and vitamin A, but white potatoes are higher in essential minerals, such as iron, magnesium, and potassium. As for the glycemic index, sweet potatoes are lower on the scale, but baked white potatoes typically aren’t eaten without cheese, sour cream, or butter. These toppings all contain fat, which lowers the glycemic index of a meal.

The bottom line: The form in which you consume a potato—for instance, a whole baked potato versus a processed potato that’s used to make chips—is more important than the type of spud.

Red Meat Causes Cancer
Myth #3: “Red meat causes cancer.”

The origin: In a 1986 study, Japanese researchers discovered cancer developing in rats that were fed “heterocyclic amines,” compounds that are generated from overcooking meat under high heat. And since then, some studies of large populations have suggested a potential link between meat and cancer.

What science really shows: No study has ever found a direct cause-and-effect relationship between red-meat consumption and cancer. As for the population studies, they’re far from conclusive. That’s because they rely on broad surveys of people’s eating habits and health afflictions, and those numbers are simply crunched to find trends, not causes.

The bottom line: Don’t stop grilling. Meat lovers who are worried about the supposed risks of grilled meat don’t need to avoid burgers and steak; rather, they should just trim off the burned or overcooked sections of the meat before eating.

HFCS is Fattening
Myth #4: “High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is more fattening than regular sugar is.”

The origin: In a 1968 study, rats that were fed large amounts of fructose developed high levels of fat in their bloodstreams. Then, in 2002, University of California at Davis researchers published a well-publicized paper noting that Americans’ increasing consumption of fructose, including that in HFCS, paralleled our skyrocketing rates of obesity.

What science really shows: Both HFCS and sucrose—better known as table sugar—contain similar amounts of fructose. For instance, the two most commonly used types of HFCS are HFCS-42 and HFCS-55, which are 42 and 55 percent fructose, respectively. Sucrose is almost chemically identical, containing 50 percent fructose. This is why the University of California at Davis scientists determined fructose intakes from both HFCS and sucrose. The truth is, there’s no evidence to show any differences in these two types of sugar. Both will cause weight gain when consumed in excess.

The bottom line: HFCS and regular sugar are empty-calorie carbohydrates that should be consumed in limited amounts. How? By keeping soft drinks, sweetened fruit juices, and prepackaged desserts to a minimum.

Salt Causes High Blood Pressure
Myth #5: “Salt causes high blood pressure and should be avoided.”

The origin: In the 1940s, a Duke University researcher named Walter Kempner, M.D., became famous for using salt restriction to treat people with high blood pressure. Later, studies confirmed that reducing salt could help reduce hypertension.

What science really shows: Large-scale scientific reviews have determined there’s no reason for people with normal blood pressure to restrict their sodium intake. Now, if you already have high blood pressure, you may be “salt sensitive.” As a result, reducing the amount of salt you eat could be helpful.

However, it’s been known for the past 20 years that people with high blood pressure who don’t want to lower their salt intake can simply consume more potassium-containing foods. Why? Because it’s really the balance of the two minerals that matters. In fact, Dutch researchers determined that a low potassium intake has the same impact on your blood pressure as high salt consumption does. And it turns out, the average guy consumes 3,100 milligrams (mg) of potassium a day—1,600 mg less than recommended.

The bottom line: Strive for a potassium-rich diet, which you can achieve by eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and legumes. For instance, spinach, broccoli, bananas, white potatoes, and most types of beans each contain more than 400 mg potassium per serving.

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